From Obelisk to Orbit: the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents goes into Space

– Maggie Sasanow
The Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents (CSAD) has recently become involved in a remarkable cross-discipline enterprise, which becomes more interesting by the day. Combining two of the Centre’s current projects, the Corpus of Ptolemaic Inscriptions (CPI), and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), the CSAD has recently begun preparation for the capture of RTI and 3D interactive images of the 6.7 metre tall obelisk from Philae in Egypt, now situated in the grounds of the Kingston Lacy estate in Dorset.
The obelisk was discovered in 1815 by William John Bankes, heir to the Kingston Lacy Estate, ‘at whose suggestion and expense’ it was transferred from Egypt to Dorset under the direction of the flamboyant Italian circus performer and archaeologist, Giovanni Belzoni. Today the obelisk forms part of the largest private collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts in the UK, now on permanent display in the house and grounds at Kingston Lacy.
The CSAD’s CPI project is creating a corpus of up-to-date editions of over 500 Greek and multilingual inscriptions on stone from Egypt during its rule by the dynasty founded in 323 BCE by Ptolemy I. Egypt is unique in that public writing survives in its own Egyptian languages alongside the Greek of the Ptolemies, and it is this co-existence of essentially the same text in two or three different scripts that in the 19th century provided the clue to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The obelisk at Kingston Lacy is one of these inscriptions, in which Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphic scripts exist alongside one other.
RTI is a photographic method that captures a subject’s surface shape and colour and enables the interactive re-lighting of the subject from any direction. A particular strength of RTI is that it can reveal surface information that cannot be seen with the naked eye. While the scripts on the Kingston Lacy obelisk are in a reasonably good state of preservation, and reading is still possible, the opportunity to improve the accuracy of the text, and to find and identify elements of pigment in the inscription, provide sufficient reason for re-examining the monument. For the National Trust, which now owns the Kingston Lacy estate, there are also conservation benefits to be gained from the creation of a permanent, accurate, interactive virtual image of the obelisk as it is today, since gradual deterioration of the original over time is inevitable.
The Philae Robotic Lander that will accompany the Rosetta Spacecraft
As well as its particular epigraphical interest for the CSAD, the obelisk is set to achieve considerably wider significance later this year: its name has been given to the robotic craft that in November 2014 will attempt a landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as part of a mission launched in 2004 by the European Space Agency (ESA). The main robotic spacecraft is named Rosetta, after the famous Egyptian basalt slab, featuring a decree in three scripts, and the lander is named after the Nile island of
Philae, where the Kingston Lacy obelisk was discovered. Having identified the obelisk as a rewarding though challenging object for RTI and 3D imaging, the CSAD team has been encouraged by this exciting coincidence to carry out the exercise as part of a multidisciplinary focus on the obelisk planned to culminate at the time of the comet landing in November. Imaging of the obelisk, together with another obelisk fragment and a sarcophagus nearby in the Kingston Lacy grounds, will be carried out in the early autumn, and time-lapse photography will record the whole process. An exhibition and a
short documentary film on the obelisk and its flamboyant history, and the CSAD’s part in recording it, are also being discussed, all to be ready to markin style the landing of its namesake, Philae, on the comet in November.
– from the Oxford Faculty of Classics Newsletter 2014

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